Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Mad Man's War in Sunflower Fields

Defiling the crime scene.

Putin taking a bite out of Ukraine, and more and more.
AP image from Crimea. 
So Putin's war in eastern Ukraine escalates.  The pro-Russian terrorists continue to wreck havoc on the land.  They treat the MH-17 crime scene with a disrespect that shocks the world. Where there was once understanding, there is hate. Where there were homes and communities, there is ruble. Where there were fields of sunflowers, there is ruin.  Where there was life, death.

It will get worse in eastern Ukraine before it gets better, because president Petro Poroshenko realizes that the terrorists, armed to the teeth with heavy weapons of war supplied by Russia, will not let go, will not leave without a fight.

The pro-Russian separatists are not a country. They are not a legal entity at all. They are a band of heavily armed mercenaries and terrorists.  They are outside the Rule of Law.  They will not negotiate, they will not leave.  They will continue to fight as long as they get support from Russia--arms, missles, tanks and, yes, soldiers and special ops.  Putin can stop it, but won't.  How can the Poroshenko government sit back and do nothing?

It's an outrageous scenario on the face of it: Pro-Russian mercenaries, Putin proxies, on Ukrainian soil, invading, violating and occupying a foreign country, as if they have every right to be there.  Shooting down a passenger plane, defiling a crime scene, preventing investigators from going there, as if they have every right not only to loot and raid the site they created, but to hold it hostage.  A band of thugs denouncing Kyiv for defending its territorial borders, accusing the US and EU of "blackmail" for issuing economic sanctions.

The sunflowers weep.   Golden domes cry out to heaven. Soldiers, young men, die. Ordinary citizens hunker down in fear, their homes and their hearts broken.  "Eastern Ukraine is now a living hell," my friend Tonya just emailed me from Starobelsk. "A living hell."

Friday, July 18, 2014

Putin's War: Out of Control in Eastern Ukraine

Donetsk destruction. Yahoo image.
Heavy weapons, shoulder-fired missiles, AK-15s, tanks, surface-to-air defense missiles (called Buks, incredible giant machines of war), increasing Russian military personnel and special ops on the ground. This is eastern Ukraine, occupied by a band of extralegal foreign terrorists, armed and encouraged by Russia.

Last weekend, Russian/separatists shot down a Ukrainian military cargo plane at 21,000 feet, a height that only sophisticated missiles could reach. No one paid attention.  Pro-Russian terrorists have been hunting Ukrainian planes for the past few weeks, and bragging about taking them down, maybe up to a dozen of them so far. Who cared?  Ukrainian planes, some carrying food, water and medicine to Ukrainian troops, have been blown out of the sky. Just Ukrainian deaths. Heavy weapons in the hands of lawless thugs with the capability to take down planes flying at over 20,000 feet?  That's life in eastern Ukraine.

Buk missile air defense system.
But these actions, this use of advanced missile systems, have international consequences, and now we clearly see the results.

Yesterday, the Russian/terrorists shot down a Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17 carrying 298 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lampur, flying at 32,000 feet. They thought it was another Ukrainian army cargo plane.

"We warned you not to fly over our skies," tweeted a Russian/separatist, proudly, as the plane went down.  Yes, as the plane went down. Cel phone messages about the plane among the separatists, intercepted by the Ukrainian government, are chilling.   No Ukrainian identification on this plane. Bodies. Foreign passports. Malaysian wording on the plane. "Why the hell was that plane flying over this territory?" a pro-Russian militant asks the men on the ground. "Any weapons?"

No, no weapons. This wasn't a Ukrainian plane, guys.  You won't find any weapons.  Just a lot of dead bodies. It was a commercial flight, on a routine flight path. There were 298 international travelers and airline personnel aboard. We will learn more about these people in the next few days, people whose lives ended tragically.  We have learned that one passenger was a highly regarded reporter planning a fantastic trip to Kuala Lampur for his 50th birthday.  "A wonderful person doing great work in the world," a friend said.

You shot this plane down thinking it was a Ukrainian transport plane. You were wrong. Very wrong. Maybe you stole the Buk from the Ukrainians, or maybe it's one of the many heavy weapons of war you have gotten from Russia.

Whatever the source, you used these advanced weapons of war glibly against a Malaysian airliner. The plane and the people in it are now scattered all over the killing fields of east Ukraine that you occupy and have violated.  You hit the wrong guys. You massacred innocent people.

International investigators and humanitarian aid will be coming to Donetsk soon, this region you are destroying, and you best get out of the way. This land belongs to Ukraine.  You are not a legal entity, not a country, that can give orders to international governments, officials and rescue teams. You will now be inundated with people who will work with the Ukrainian government.   They have to secure the crime scene that you are corrupting.  The black box in Moscow? Another tragedy in the making.

You got the world's attention with this one. 295 lives lost.  You'll pay for it one day.  This is Putin's War against Ukraine. It has international consequences. And it's out of control.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Eleanor Roosevelt visits Sylvania Historical Society

"I think somehow we learn who we really are and then live with that decision."

"I could not at any age be content to sit by the fireside and simply look on."  

"No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."

"The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams."
                                                                                 quotes by Eleanor Roosevelt

Gail Conrad as Eleanor Roosevelt at a Women in History program
sponsored by the Sylvania Area Historical Society.
Eleanor Roosevelt came to the Sylvania Area Historical Society on Wednesday night and shared her story.  She talked about growing up a lonely child;  going to boarding school in England and finding her own voice; marrying Franklin D. Roosevelt and serving as "his eyes, and his legs" through depression and war; and moving on to become an activist for social justice and human rights.

Eleanor came to life through the voice of Gail Conrad, a member of the American Association of University Wormen (AAUW) and a participant in the AAUW's women in history series.  The AAUW series features "living history presentations to introduce children and adults to notable women and the important contributions they have made to society."   The dramatic soliloquys bring the experiences and views of women to life.

Gail Conrad, in a lovely red hat and pearls right out of the 1930s, channeled the interesting life of Eleanor Roosevelt to an appreciative audience.  Eleanor rose from being a lonely child of privilege who thought of herself as "an ugly duckling," to become a wife and mother, partner to a president, and then a social activist and humanitarian, a women of the world, brilliant, confident and compassionate.

The next programs in the Sylvania Area Historial Society's women in history series will feature Annie Oakley and Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, America's first woman doctor.  Look for more information in our newsletter, the Sylvania Advantage, or on our website at


Monday, July 14, 2014

Transportation Palaces of Ukraine: The trains (вокзалы) are still running

Starobelsk Train Station, at top; stations in Kyiv (with iconic clocktower),
Khargiv, Lviv in collage; Odessa station, above. 

The trains (вокзалы) are still running in Ukraine. The stations are open for business, and so are most airports (there are far fewer) if you can get to them. While Lugansk and Donetsk are sitting ducks for more death, destruction and brutality, I am remembering the trains and getting around Ukraine.

Chernigov train station, so elegant inside and out, 
one of my first train experiences. 

I like the train stations in the eastern cities of Lugansk, Donetsk, and Khargiv, because these were closest to home in Starobelsk.  Lugansk especially. The station in Kyiv was almost a second home, centrally located, near Peace Corps headquarters (a nice walk), incredibly gorgeous inside.  Then there are the fabulous stations in Chernigov in the north (one of the most beautiful), Odessa in the south, and Lviv way out west. They are beautiful and accomodating; clean, efficient and pretty friendly (well, there was the occasional brisk clerk who wouldn't help a non-native speaker).

Most stations are architectural feasts, built as public gathering places for people from all walks of life, palaces of transportation, like the famous Carnegie libraries in the U.S. that are so rich and ornate.  Ukrainian train stations are filled with vendors and small businesses, inside and outside, selling everything imaginable, from flowers to flags, to trinkets and food.  Trains are the main ways to get around in Ukraine, reliable and relatively inexpensive.

The tickets were complicated for me at first, the language confusing--what kind of train, what class, what car, what time--but after a while, and with lots of help, I could read the schedules, decipher the tickets, and get just about anywhere. Overnight trains were the most popular. You had to take a train to get to an airport (аэропортов), especially to Kyiv's Borispil, the main international airport, and also to Donetsk if you were going South, say to Crimea or Turkey.   I can't remember how I got to Egypt.

Lugansk station: not the most beautiful but functional.
I spent many hours there, my main station.  
Oh yes, I remember.  I had taken the overnight train from Lugansk to Kyiv to get a flight to Egypt. A passenger in my compartment (I believe it was a nice young man, a student, who generously shared his food and liked to converse) had stolen my passport and money (the only time that happened).  I was frantic to get the passport.  I went first to a police station and then to Peace Corps headquarters (which has a very good security team) with my woeful tale. It was a bad day.  By the end of it, the Peace Corps had found my passport (God knows how), and the next day I flew to Cairo. I was grateful that the robber had thrown my passport in a place where it could be found by the police. It was a miracle.

The armed pro-Russian terrorists have made it hard to get to trains in the east, but it's possible.  My friends in Starobelsk were supposed to mail some applications for an exchange project that might bring them to America, but no mail is going in or out because the roads are blocked, barricaded, dangerous.  The trains are still running, though, and my friends made it somehow to Lugansk, then on to Kyiv, to deliver the applications in person. Brave souls, these women who are keeping families and communities together in eastern Ukraine.

Trains are the best way to see the country.  Once you get past the industrial smokestacks and the old Soviet factories and buildings, and the ugly parts, which of course do exist, then you are rewarded with beautiful landscapes that rise up to take your breath away. Glorious and colorful church domes and cultural centers; fields of sunflowers and wheat; sun rises, sunsets, and moon rises over small towns and villages; steppes and forests, farms and gardens in all seasons. Winter is especially beautiful.

Travel by train is a good way to meet people, too. Most travelers do not speak any English, but they soon caught on that an Amerikanka was in their midst, and most were curious. We did our best. Lots of dictionairies and pantomime. Some cel phone calls to someone who might know some English and could help translate.  Lots of frustration, lots of smiles.

The worst train ride I had was after breaking my arm (I fell off my bike) and having to get to Kyiv with only a few tylenol to ease the excruciating pain.  I moaned and groaned all the way. I felt sorry for the other passengers in my car. I said, more than once "сломанная рука, извините." I couldn't talk after that. I couldn't sleep, couldn't move, couldn't do a thing. A train ride has never been so bumpy: speeding up, grinding to a halt, hitting bumps at high speeds, slamming on brakes. It was miserable.  I had to be lifted off the train, into the waiting SUV, and into Peace Corps headquarters.   I wasn't voted the toughest PC volunteer in my group for nothing!

Old Doneesk station, since updated.
I learned a lot about the Ukrainian people during the long train rides.
No matter what the circumstances of their lives, people always shared their hospitality and their food. At first I didn't know about stocking up on food and drink for the journey, but fellow passengers taught me, and offered me theirs. After that I'd always bring extra cookies to share.

The trains of Ukraine.  The beautiful train stations.  The kindness of strangers.  Maybe a united Ukraine will run as efficiently at its trains some day, connecting east and west, serving the needs of the people, taking advantage of their incredible assets, shining a light on their strengths, offering public gathering places that serve as centers for civic discourse and the sharing of ideas and dreams.

For more on Ukraine trains, here's a good blog (took some photos from it):


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Lugansk Lament

Statue of poet Taras Shevchenko
on Lugansk university campus.
So I asked my friend Vovo, who lives and works in Lugansk, where he was, and why his facebook page was down.  It took a while to get a reply.  "I had to take it down because I am on the separatists' list of fascist supporters of Kyiv."

Vovo is the director of an important NGO in Lugansk. His only crime is fighting for local government transparency and citizen participation in accordance with Ukrainian law. A loyal Ukrainian professional, educated, informed and compassionate, Vovo is considered a "fascist."

"It is not safe.  It's the way it is now."  He is matter of fact.  He covers any fear with a touch of stoicism, so like a Ukrainian in the face of danger.  He shows no anger, only understanding of the situation he is in, that his country is in.   "It's the way it is now."

Vovo cannot do his work, cannot live openly, cannot meet with friends, can't be with his family and loved ones, because a bunch of pro-Russian terrorists, armed and violent, have taken over his city and designated him an enemy.  Many of his friends and colleagues have been hurt and jailed. Hundreds of people have disappeared, some of whom Vovo knew.

This is one of the more outrageous aspects of the terrorist takeover of Lugansk and Donetsk oblasts.  It's another reason I am glad to see the Ukrainian army on the offensive, fighting for their country's territorial integrity, and the terrorist thugs retreating.  I hope peace and stability return soon, without more death and destruction.

I want Vovo to be able to go home again.  I want ordinary people of  eastern Ukraine to be safe. I want my friends who are feeding and caring for the young Ukrainian soldiers to stop worrying about gunfire, tanks and death. "I weep for these young men, most only 19 years old.  They are still children, and they are under fire, looking death in the eye," wrote my friend Olga.

Once some stability returns, then I hope that good people are chosen to lead local transition governments that were occupied by the separatists, and I pray that president Petro Poroshenko will support them.

Ancient fertility goddesses from an archeological dig, in
a sculpture garden on the campus, a hidden treasure trove
I remember how Vovo helped me when I was a novice volunteer; he made me feel welcome, introduced me to people, helped me become part of the Starobelsk community and connect to the larger Lugansk region.  I remember going with my counterpart to workshops and training seminars for NGO leaders that Vovo and his colleagues organized.  I remember how he took time to take me on tours of Lugansk, shared his vast knowledge of the history of Ukraine and his hometown.  I remember the walks we took through the Taras Shevchenko National University, the lovely parks, the public library. And I remember and cherish the great times we shared over a beer at outdoor cafes with friends.  Those were the times our differences melted away, we found common ground, and we built bridges of understanding.

Happier times. Taking a seminar
break to enjoy spring on campus,
That's why I care about what's happening in Ukraine.  I was privileged to see its soul.  I came to feel its struggles and absorb its hope.  Vovo embodies what is good about his country, embodies the dreams of the many.  He's a fighter for social justice and civil society.  He won't give up, and I'll always cheer him on.   He might be in hiding now, but he'll be back in Lugansk one day, helping to build a strong self-determined country that rewards and reflects the spirit of its people.

The Starobelsk branch of the Lugansk Taras Shevshenko
National University. My friend Natalia teaches English there.

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